TOMIOKA, Japan (AP) – Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.
Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.
Above all, radiation is everywhere.
It’s difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the former Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16,000 people to flee, Onuki can’t quite make the psychological break to start anew.
His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.
“They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.”
The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.
Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.
If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($1,000) they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant.
A survey last year found that 16 percent of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40 percent had decided never to return, and 43 percent were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.
Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?
Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said. If he hadn’t evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.
“It is a ridiculous question,” Suzuki said. “We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.”
In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.
The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.
The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as “difficult to return.” They are still enclosed by a barricade.
Yellow designates a “restricted” area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.
The green zones are “in preparations to lift evacuation orders.” They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.
Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.
The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20 millisieverts a year.
The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1 millisievert, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.
In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki’s and Onuki’s homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1 millisievert in a matter of a few hours.
During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.
The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighborhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.
“The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute,” said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. “We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.”
Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn’t keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn’t bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.
Junji Oshida, 43, whose family ran an upscale restaurant in Tomioka that specialized in eel, was at first devastated that he lost the traditional sauce for the eel that had been passed down over generations.
He has since opened a new restaurant just outside the zone that caters to nuclear cleanup workers. He recreated the sauce and serves pork, which is cheaper than eel. He lives apart from his wife and sons, who are in a Tokyo suburb.
“There is no sense in looking back,” Oshida said, still wearing the eel restaurant’s emblem on his shirt.
Older residents can’t give up so easily, even those who will never be able to return – like Tomioka city assemblyman Seijun Ando, whose home lies in the most irradiated, pink zone.
Ando, 59, said that dividing Tomioka by radiation levels has pitted one group of residents against another, feeding resentment among some. One idea he has is to bring residents from various towns in the no-go zone together to start a new community in another, less radiated part of Fukushima – a place he described as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots,” said Ando, tears welling up in his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”
Governor Yuhei Sato of Fukushima Prefecture met with the mayors of eight municipalities in Futaba County on Feb. 7 to brief them on a revised plan for the locations of sites for temporarily storing contaminated soil and other debris caused by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. Under the new plan, Naraha Town will be removed from a list of candidate storage sites, which will be limited to Okuma and Futaba towns. In addition, a facility will be constructed in Naraha to dispose of burned ash containing radioactive substances exceeding 8,000 becquerels and not more than 100,000 becquerels of radiation per kilogram.
The disposal facility will solidify incineration ash generated in the prefecture with cement. After disposal, cemented ash will be moved to the existing facility in Tomioka Town for final burial. It will not be buried at the site of the disposal facility. The location of the disposal facility in Naraha has yet to be fixed.
An earlier central government plan called for the disposal facility to be built at the same location as the burial site in Tomioka. But the prefectural government has concluded that this plan is not acceptable because the Tomioka site is too small in space to ensure safe work and that a new disposal site should be found elsewhere. Naraha has been shortlisted for the disposal facility because trucks carrying contaminated debris will run through the town on their way to the planned storage sites, according to prefectural government officials. The revised plan appears to be based on the perception that the burden of accepting facilities should be shared in a balanced manner among the towns involved.
The reclassification of the evacuation zones set in nine municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power station will be completed at midnight May 27 with the step in Futaba town.
The town, all of which has been designated as a no-go zone, will be reclassified into an area difficult for residents to return to over a long period of time and into an area readying for the lifting of evacuation orders.
Futaba’s reclassification would complete the work to reclassify the evacuation zones in nine municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture which are located in a radius of 20 kilometers from the nuclear power plant.
Of the whole population of 76,420 in the evacuation zones in the nine municipalities, 32,130 or 42 percent would be in areas readying for the lifting of evacuation orders where businesses such as manufacturers are able to resume operations in the daytime.
The population in the residence-restricted areas with visitation-only access where residents would be allowed to enter in the daytime but cannot resume business operations would be 19,230 or 25 percent of the total.
A total of 51,360 people, or 67 percent, can enter the two categories of areas in the daytime, conduct repairing work and sort out household goods at their homes.
The central and local governments are expected to speed up the work to restore infrastructure, such as roads and water supply and sewage service systems.
But areas difficult for residents to return to over a long period of time are set in six of the nine municipalities. The population in those areas stands at 25,002. In the towns of Futaba and Okuma, 96 percent of the residents are from those areas.
The residents in the reclassified areas expect an acceleration of preparations for them to return to their hometowns, such as repairs of their homes. But more work to decontaminate radiation will be necessary for the residents to restore their living conditions. It is also necessary to reopen supermarkets and medical institutions.
The Environment Ministry has picked eight candidate sites to build temporary storage facilities for radiation-contaminated waste and debris.
According to a plan presented by the ministry to Futaba and Okuma towns, all the eight candidate sites are located in areas difficult for residents to return to over a long period of time.
The central government needs to pick the sites for temporary storage facilities and purchase land from the owners. Such owners may be required to take tough decisions to sell their home land.
In addition, the ministry has designated evacuation zones in 11 municipalities of Fukushima Prefecture as places where the central government should conduct decontamination work.
But full-fledged decontamination work has started only in four municipalities –- the city of Tamura, the town of Naraha, and the villages of Kawauchi and Iitate.
Decontamination work has been slow in the towns of Tomioka and Futaba where detailed plans for decontamination have yet to be worked out. At many areas in those municipalities, the prospects for residents to return home have yet to be worked out.
The town governments of Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and Namie plan to build so-called “temporary communities” outside their hometowns for evacuees from the nuclear disaster.
Of the 12 municipalities where evacuation zones were set up in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, the central government lifted its evacuation advisory for residents in the town of Hirono in September 2011.
In July 2012, the evacuation zone in the village of Iitate was reclassified into three areas. Only the Yamakiya district in the town of Kawamata has yet to be reclassified.
The town government of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture plans to call on other municipalities in the prefecture’s Futaba county to join in building “temporary towns” for their residents in the same place since they are not expected to be able to return to their homes in the near future due to high levels of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The Tomioka municipal government envisages temporary towns in three locations — Tomioka’s low-radiation area, the city of Iwaki and the city of Koriyama.
These plans are contained in a set of documents the town government presented at a meeting of its reconstruction panel in Koriyama on April 20.
Panel chairman Shiro Tanaka, who is the town’s deputy mayor, said after the meeting that infrastructure can be established at an early date by creating “temporary towns” jointly with other towns. Tanaka also expressed his intention to promote talks with other municipalities in Futaba county.
Tanaka hinted at mergers of municipalities within the county in the future. “Cooperation with other municipalities would give major momentum to restoration efforts and might lead to discussions of mergers between them,” he said.
Tanaka also said the municipalities should work together and coordinate on the locations of life-service facilities, such as hospitals, nursing-care and welfare facilities and commercial facilities, in the temporary towns.
Four towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture have yet to formulate recovery plans 18 months after the devastating March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, a Mainichi survey has found — underscoring the long-term effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the quake.
The Mainichi conducted a survey on recovery measures in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures ahead of the 1 1/2 year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disaster. Municipalities were given until late August to submit responses.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the Mainichi surveyed 15 municipalities in coastal areas and evacuation zones. The town of Namie was one of four municipalities in the prefecture that have yet to form reconstruction plans. It said the nuclear disaster had prevented it from doing so.
Two of the 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture that have already formed recovery plans said they were planning to revise those initiatives. The town of Kawamata responded that it would revise measures on the return of evacuees, while the town of Naraha, which has also been affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, explained that it would revise its recovery preparations as “daily circumstances have been changing since the formulation of plans, as seen in the rezoning of no-go areas.”
Moves have been progressing in areas hit by the March 2011 tsunami to relocate communities as a disaster prevention measure. The Fukushima Prefecture municipalities of Shinchi, Soma and Minamisoma have received approval from the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism for the relocation of all homes under such measures, while the city of Iwaki has received approval for some 70 percent of homes due to be relocated. However, the town of Tomioka has not yet received approval for any home relocations. Officials say they will handle the issue once evacuation districts are realigned and work is carried out to decontaminate the town from radioactive materials emanating from the disaster-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
A shortage of manpower has been raised as an issue in areas recovering from the disaster, but 11 municipalities in the prefecture have received support workers from other local bodies. Most of the 11 cities, towns and villages that gave concrete figures for the shortage of workers said they lacked technical workers.